Book Review by Dana Kendall, Ph.D.
Director of Research and Assistant Professor of Industrial/Organizational Psychology
The Art of Choosing, 2010 by Sheena Iyengar, Ph.D. (http://www.columbia.edu/~ss957/)
This blog entry is the first of a series of installments, reviewing this book.
The Art of Choosing is not about how to make better decisions. Quite the contrary, it presents evidence suggesting that decision making is much more complicated than it appears at first blush. This should not be surprising because in the realm of social psychology (i.e., the study of human cognition and behavior in social contexts), nothing is ever simple. I was attracted to the book because of my own partiality to the field of social psychology—which comprises the foundation of I/O Psychology.
About the Author
Although the Dr. Iyengar has studied under some famous social psychologists like Martin Seligman, Mark Lepper, and Dan Gilbert, she has a scholarly track record that demonstrates her competency as a researcher in her own right—currently a professor at Columbia University. She was born to Sikh parents who immigrated to the U.S. before she was born. Early in life, she was diagnosed with a degenerative eye disease that left her blind by the time she was a teenager.
Why Does Choice Matter?
Dr. Iyengar opens the book with a claim that choice is an integral part of what makes us human. Uh, but wait a second…..even animals like to have choice! At this point in the narrative, the author describes the perfect hotel that is specifically designed to meet your every need. It has endless varieties of every activity you can imagine and hotel staff ready to wait on you 24/7. For hypothetical purposes, the reader is asked to assume that every single conceivable need s/he could possibly have will be ultimately satisfied.
So, what’s the catch? What could possibly taint this perfect picture? Who wouldn’t automatically snatch up the opportunity to live this beautiful life?
Well…..what if you knew that once you checked into this fabulous hotel, you could never….ever …..check out? You must stay…..and never leave….until your last day. Most individuals would not even consider this grand existence worth the price of parting with their freedom of choice.
Interestingly, this perfect hotel situation mirrors the life that many zoo animals are forced to experience. Every one of their needs is met and great care is taken to ensure they are comfortable and well-fed. In many zoos, they will even be able to enjoy the company of others of their same species as they reproduce and raise young together. Despite these favorable amenities, many animals demonstrate indications of stress in captivity. Often they engage in repetitive behaviors, a sign of “zoochosis” (For more info on this zoo animal malady, see: http://www.usask.ca/wcvm/herdmed/applied-ethology/behaviourproblems/zooanim.html).
In a classic study by Rodin and Langer (1977), the benefits of choice were explored in a population of nursing home residents. The first group of residents was given the choice to watch a weekly movie and asked if they would like a plant in their room to care for. The second group was told that they would get to watch the weekly movie, and they would have a plant in their rooms that the nurse would care for. Over time, the residents in the choice group remained healthier than the individuals in the non-choice group. Since then, study after study conducted in the U.S. and other western countries have turned up similar results—human and animal mental health states are positively influenced when they are able to exert control and experience freedom.
Rodin J. & Langer E.J. (1977) Long-term effects of a control-relevant intervention with the institutionalized aged. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 35, 897-902.
SPU’s Response Magazine featured an article by Dr. Margaret Diddams and Richard Kobayashi, and an article about Dr. Rob McKenna, Dr. Paul Yost and the formation of the Industrial/Organizational Psychology Program at Seattle Pacific University.
The article by Dr. Diddams and doctoral student Richard Kobayashi, Lessons From a Prodigal Father; Transforming Self to Transform Others, discuses Luke 15 and the experiences that lead to transformation. Included in the article is a link to a video of Dr. Diddams at the Day of Common Learning.
The article: Tools for Leadership; SPU program teaches leadership with character, features interesting facts about how Dr. McKenna and Dr. Yost met, quotes alumni from the program, the Dean of the School of Psychology, Family, and Community, and the President of SPU. Read it to learn more about the impact our faculty and students are making in the world of work. You can view the article online:
Recently published books Dying to Lead; Sacrificial Leadership in a Self Centered World by Dr. Rob McKenna, and Real Time Leadership Development by Dr. Paul Yost were highlighted in the response:
What happens when you put together a humanitarian organization that serves the needs of the children of the world, a dynamic advertising agency, and a leadership development consulting firm? You get the trip I am on right now. I’m in the Dominican Republic with a team from the Seattle based ad agency… known as HL2 to serve with Children of Nations. This is one of the coolest things I’ve had the opportunity to be involved in as it’s a team effort between HL2, Children of Nations, and RTDS. We are here to respond to the need in the DR and Haiti, and in the process, help this team be intentional about learning from the experience. The members of my research team have been involved from the start, devising a strategy for understanding how an experience like this impacts a team of businesspeople from the US. In the process, it has taught me so much.
For more information, read on.
If you haven’t been following the events on facebook, here’s the link.
So far the lessons for me are many, but here’s a sampling.
Lessons about myself.
More later. I will see you all soon. Lead on. I apologize for the typos….
As you are now deep in the season of writing your applications to graduate school, I just wanted to touch base and say hello. I can still remember that process like it was yesterday. Before there were electronic applications, you had to create piles for each school just to keep it all straight. I had lots of piles in a room in my house, that each represented a school, my essay about why I belonged there, my letters of recommendation, and the basic applications. It was a challenging process, but at the same time, it taught me so much about myself. Both the application process and the weeding out process (for me and the schools) taught me a lot about how I show up when something matters to me, what I value in graduate school, how I view research in the context of organizations, and how I deal with both acceptance and rejection. It was a challenging time, but a really important time. I remember celebrating the acceptance letters I wanted, rolling my eyes at the acceptance letters I didn’t want, being frustrated by the rejection letters I didn’t want, and being equally frustrated by the schools that rejected me that I didn’t want to go to anyway (because maybe they should have known betterJ).
In all the feelings that will come to you over the coming weeks and months, I hope that this will be a time of great insight. Insight about the schools to which you’ve applied, insight about what you want, insight about what you would sacrifice, and insight about who you are, where you excel, and insight about why you are.
Whether you end up at Seattle Pacific University studying Industrial/Organizational Psychology, or somewhere else, may this be an incredible time of blessing and learning for you and for those close to you.
I am the Program Coordinator for the Industrial/Organizational Psychology program at Seattle Pacific University. I have been in this position for just over a year and wanted to take a chance to communicate what I have learned in this past year. When I began this position I knew nothing about Industrial/Organizational Psychology. I had spent the past 20 years of my life focused on the sport of gymnastics. I competed for Seattle Pacific’s gymnastics team, and upon graduating I began my current position. Needless to say I have learned a lot in the past year….
So, here goes.
What I’ve learned about I/O Psychology in the past year
1. People spend the majority of their life at work
2. People don’t leave jobs, they leave managers
3. The character of a person is just as, if not more important, than the job qualifications
4. People develop on the job, in real time
5. I/O Psychologists work with businesses to select the best employees for the job, which leads to more longevity in the company
6. I/O psychologists perform assessments to evaluate the performance and learning of employees, and then can use those assessments to improve the overall performance of the company
7. I/O Psychologists work in a variety of settings, from human resources, private consulting, in fortune 500 companies, law firms and universities
8. Good leaders help those they lead to accomplish tasks and have them feel like they did it on their own
9. The students in the I/O program at SPU come from all over the country, from a variety of degrees, life situations, values, and ages, and share the same passion of changing the world of work.
10.The program at SPU provides the research students need to be competent practitioners in this field, and also teaches students the tools they need to put their research into practice.
Those are some of the lessons that have been important to me. Here’s what it has taught me about myself
1.I stepped into a new role that I knew nothing about ,and have had my most important lessons while developing on in this position. I have been charged with projects that put me on the edge of my comfort zone, and looking back those are the situations I have learned and grown the most in.
2. It didn’t matter as much what I knew about I/O Psychology, but rather the character, attitude, and work ethic I brought into the position. This is a lesson I will take with me wherever I go, and gives me confidence that I can continue to tackle things that seem daunting.
3.I was unsure when starting this position who I was outside of the gymnastics world, as it was the culture I had been immersed in since I was four. Instead of trying to change for the position I showed up exactly as I was, as my raw self. This has allowed me to grow, receive feedback, and realize what else made me unique and valuable outside of gymnastics. This has taught me to continue to be my real self in any situation.
4.I have learned a tremendous amount from those that are leading me in this position. I have leaders that give me honest feedback, challenge me, help me accomplish new projects, and have encouraged me to lead others. I have realized that the faculty “practice what they preach” because they apply the theories of leadership in their relationship with me.
5.I am not perfect. I grew up in a culture that required perfection, however, I am not expected to be perfect in this position. I am learning to accept imperfection, realizing that I am learning and developing in the moments when I make a mistake or something does not turn out exactly as planned. People have shown me grace when I do make a mistake, which is not something I had experienced in my past.
6. I will never know all there is to know about IO Psychology or this position. And I would never want to be at a place where I did have all the answers. It’s the not knowing that keeps me on the edge, eager to learn.
Again, I’m not a student in the program, but I’ve learned a few things…..
I recently read a quote from an interview with the great poet William Stafford. It said, “It’s a confirming, satisfying activity to do. And it’s almost devotional. Maybe that’s too strong, but it’s as if a day of my life deserves a little attention from life. It’s my kind of attention to stop long enough, to let the evaluative, the speculative, the exploratory impulses that are native to that portion of my time be manifest in a sustained way so that I can recognize them and get sustenance from them.”
While the honest truth is that I struggled to understand a lot of poetry when I was in junior high and high school, this comment from ol’ Bill Stafford got me thinking, as does his poetry. Whether we are writers, poets, electricians, leaders, students, musicians, baristas, businesspeople, pastors, parents, or engineers, this makes sense. Is it possible that the real stuff of your life, the challenges you face at home and at work or even the most mundane things, could be important enough for you to spend a little bit of that life being intentionally reflective about that life? And, is it possible that giving a little bit of time to actually reflect would help you get it done, be more present, deal with adversity, and find hope in the midst of the real and present challenges of life.
So, here’s a way to measure the extent to which your “life is getting attention from life.”
You don’t have to have all of these answers, but the fact is that if you make the space to think about it, it will make you more interesting and purposeful, and probably a better parent, leader, and person.